Council Committee OKs PHA Land Grab in Sharswood

But some residents say the move will keep low-income African Americans from cashing in on their real estate assets. The bill now moves to the full council.

At Tuesday’s Philadelphia City Council Rules Committee hearing, Philadelphia Housing Authority President and CEO Kelvin Jeremiah painted a picture of a Sharswood whose residents lived in affordable homes with access to a thriving business district, good education, health care and employment opportunities, the product of its redeveloping some 1,300 parcels of land it wishes to acquire via eminent domain with new homes, offices and retail space.

The Rules Committee bought the picture, voting to refer a bill allowing the PHA to proceed with the land acquisition to the full Council. But some 20 city residents who testified against the bill weren’t buying it at all.

Jeremiah said the reason the agency wanted to acquire all the land at once is because “given the level of blight, vacant and abandoned homes, we didn’t want this done piecemeal.” Nonetheless, he told committee members that the transformation would take place in 10 phases. The first phase, in which 57 new townhomes will be built on the site of the demolished Norman Blumberg Apartments towers, will begin later this month or early next, but the rest of the phases, he said, were part of “an ambitious development agenda that could take up to 10 years.”

That’s how long it takes now for an applicant on PHA’s waiting list to actually move into an apartment. And the PHA’s track record in housing people, maintaining the properties it currently has, and redeveloping communities all came under fire from opponents of the PHA’s plan.

“PHA is horribly managed,” said Sharswood resident Judith Robinson, a longtime real estate broker in the neighborhood, in her lengthy testimony. “I attended their May 21st board meeting and there were many residents who had problems with the agency.”

West Philadelphia resident Artie Tillman, whose son owns property in Sharswood, was also skeptical about PHA’s ability to deliver on its promise, even over 10 years’ time. “I live in Jannie Blackwell’s district, and they came in and said these beautiful words; they would put in better things for the area,” he said. “They said they would give [tenants] the opportunity to own. That was a lie, because 15 years later, they’re still renters.”

Of the parcels PHA wants to acquire, only 73 are occupied, according to Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Brian Abernathy, who also testified at the hearing. Fifty-seven of the occupied properties are homes and 16 are active businesses. On top of that, 373 Blumberg residents will be relocated to other PHA apartments. “Relocating this number of residents is challenging but achievable,” he said, describing the process and assistance PHA and the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority will provide to displaced home and business owners. He also pledged that the outside appraisers being hired by PRA would come up with fair market value for their homes.

Not good enough, said Robinson, who accused PHA and city officials of all but conspiring to keep low-income African-American homeowners from cashing in on their sole sizable asset. “Land is our asset,” she said. “We can negotiate with developers” for a better price for it “if the politicians get out of the way.” Robinson urged placing the land into a trust held by the community and that the community and individual homeowners do the negotiating for a fair price. She also called for forgiveness of back taxes and other encumbrances so that sales could proceed expeditiously.

Robinson also praised Habitat for Humanity as an organization that understands the communities it works in and urged that it take the lead in redevelopment. In his testimony, Jeremiah said the PHA would partner with Habitat on redeveloping the land it acquired.

Charles Holliday, a 40-year Sharswood resident who is also on the board of the Brewerytown Community Development Corporation but testified on his own behalf, echoed Robinson: “The residents should be able to negotiate the best price for their property, and they’re not being able to.”

He added that he feared that, instead of revitalizing Sharswood, PHA’s actions would instead spread blight to adjacent areas in a community now experiencing the first signs of private redevelopment.

Others voiced concern over what they saw as arbitrary behavior and a lack of transparency on PHA’s part. The owner of a nail salon on Ridge Avenue told the committee that she could not understand why the PHA wanted to take her business, which is part of a row of active businesses on her block, but not the properties adjacent to it.

Council member Marian Tasco, in her questioning of Jeremiah and Abernathy, also echoed the concerns of the other witnesses. “In other cities, I’ve seen affordable units where, after 15 years, the tenants have to leave and they become high-end market-rate units.” (The PHA’s plan calls for 405, or about one-third, of the nearly 1,200 units it plans to construct to be sold to individual homeowners. As with the rental units, the overwhelming majority of these will be affordable.) She also worried that businesses displaced by the PHA’s takings would not be able to afford the rents in the new commercial buildings that replaced the ones they were being forced out of.

In the end, though, none of these concerns mattered. The PHA’s project has apparently gained enough momentum to move through Council, or at least past the eight members of the Rules Committee, with only a cursory regard for the concerns of the residents, some of whom, seeing the project move with the force of a freight train, worry that they are being railroaded.

The next stop for the eminent domain bill is the entire Council.

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Previously: Sharswood Residents Experiencing PHA Deja Vu